“I’ve been going to that venue since I was a teenager,” Fish, a Kansas City native, confirms. “That and Knuckleheads were my two favorite places to go see live music.”
Still, it’s harder to imagine what that younger Fish was really thinking: “And when I’m up there, I’m going to try a little bit of Allen Toussaint, some Nina Simone, maybe even cover a Lulu song like ‘I’ll Come Running Over.’”
That’s exactly what Fish, who began her recording career in 2009, has made happen. Beyond simply playing Crossroads KC, Fish and her band are hosting “Samantha Fish’s Big Summer Kick-Off,” a two-night Memorial Day weekend blowout, and she’s arriving back home in the middle of the tour for Chills and Fever, her innovatively retro new covers album.
“It’s been a big year for me and my band,” Fish acknowledges. “We’ve been having a lot of great things go on, and Kansas City has always been the most supportive group of people. This was the perfect opportunity—doing two days for one of my favorite cities.”
Chills and Fever (the title cut originally done by Ronnie Love, and later by Tom Jones) has received raves, including a four-star Stereophile review, even as it has taken fans by surprise. In addition to songs by Toussaint (“Nearer To You”) and Simone (“Either Way I Lose”), Fish covers “He Did It” (most famously done by The Ronettes), the traditional Piedmont blues “Crow Jane” — and a lot more.
“Oh, man,we played so much more material on that record by playing songs that were only three minutes long,” Fish says with a laugh.
“There are some pretty deep cuts,” she admits. “It’s kind of a crazy record, because the concept was finding songs that were not hits when they were released originally, back in the day, and then redoing them and breathing new life into them.”
They should have been hit songs, she insists.
“You can hear it in the riffs and the melodies. They’re beautiful songs.”
The classic material, originally from 45s from labels like Dot and Okeh, gives Fish a chance to stretch her astounding vocal range. Covering the female singers was a particular challenge.
“Trying to pay tribute to a singer like Nina Simone is nearly impossible," she says. "There’s no imitating what she did. It’s trying to ride the line of being respectful to the original material but also finding a way to make it your own. There’s no way I can do them better than they did.”
That might be true, but Fish comes close. Even more importantly, she’s drawing attention back to songs nearly forgotten.
“That Betty Harris song ‘Hello Stranger’ — talk about passion and soul! (Soul singer) Ted Taylor coming in on a song like ‘Somebody’s Always Trying’ is crazy.”
Despite the emphasis on the songs, the record still leaves plenty of room for Fish to let her guitar shine — which has been a highlight of live shows for years.
“The guitar is just as much part of my identity as anything else,” Fish says. “But we had to find the places where it fit, it made sense, and where people are going to enjoy it the most.”
Her solos sometimes emerge in unlikely places, such as on “He Did It, where it’s like having The Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector suddenly break loose with a guitar break toward the end of “Be My Baby.”
“It made it more of a garage rock song,” Fish says of her guitar work. “It’s the one we’ve been opening the show with—it’s kind of burning for guitar. It’s fun.” It’s like having The Ronettes’ Ronnie Spector suddenly break loose with a guitar break toward the end of “Be My Baby.”
Fish has fronted a trio for years, but the latest and larger incarnation of her band makes it possible capture the ‘50s and ‘60s R & B, girl group, blues and rock and roll sounds these covers demand. In addition to long-time bassist Chris Alexander, the band features drummer Kenny Tudrick (of the Detroit Cobras), Phil Breen on keyboards, Travis Blotsky on baritone and tenor saxophone, and Mark Levron on trumpet. (In addition to Samantha Fish’s bigger band, the Memorial Day bash features Memphis soul from the Southern Avenue Band, Wichita’s Moreland and Arbuckle, and New Orleans funk ambassadors Dumpstaphunk.)
Fans will want to make arrangements to hit both nights; Fish predicts two completely different shows.
“I’ve been anticipating this show for a while,” she says. “We’ve been working up material for both shows, finding ways to make it really exciting for everyone. I’m really excited bring this show we’ve been working on for the last year to Kansas City.”
Samantha Fish’s Big Summer Bash, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 26 and 27, at Crossroads KC, 417 E. 18th St, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.